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Depression Often Starts in Childhood

New research shows that depression starts early in life.

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If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, you should consult your pediatrician, says Hockey. "Many of these symptoms can also be traced to physical complaints -- such as thyroid problems, mononucleosis, immune system disorders, long-term antibiotic use, or chronic, long-term allergies -- so it's important to get an accurate diagnosis."

Infants and toddlers, who are not at the same stage of expressing themselves as older children, may still exhibit symptoms of depression; in their case, says Fassler, pay attention if your child is withdrawn, doesn't smile, doesn't want to play, won't interact with other people, and starts losing weight.

If your doctor does think treatment for depression is indicated, childhood mental health experts emphasize that it's usually very successful. With a multi-pronged approach of individual, family, and/or school counseling -- and perhaps the use of antidepressants -- 75% to 80% of children suffering from depression can be successfully treated, says Fassler. Without treatment, he says, many will go on to have a second episode of depression within two years.

Children who are too young to talk can still be effectively treated through play therapy, says Fassler. "Even when kids don't have words, we can still find out what's going on."

Hockey says that childhood depression can be prevented -- or at least, the risk factors for depression can be lowered, just as risk factors for heart disease or type 2 diabetes can be lowered.

There are many risk factors for childhood depression, Hockey says. Many of them are environmental and changeable. "Reducing the number of risk factors reduces the chances a child will experience most forms of clinical depression," she says.

"In addition to the more obvious things like being sure your children eat healthily, get exercise, and are not under unreasonable stress for their age, you can reduce the risk factors for depression by being aware that there are certain life skills, ways of perceiving life events, and problem-solving skills that seem to shield children from depression," she explains.

Having a depressed parent is one of the most critical risk factors for a child, says Hockey. "Children of depressed parents are four times more likely to experience depression than children with non-depressed parents. It is vital that depressed parents seek treatment for their own depression if they want their children to be depression-free."

While childhood depression is a serious illness, Hockey says, parents need to know they can do something about it. "Don't sit back and take a 'wait-and-see' approach," she stresses. "That doesn't cut it."

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